When considering which of the hundreds of walking paths in France appeals to you the most, following the towpath alongside a canal may not be the first option that springs to mind.
And although canals were once the commercial highways of France, today they are oases of calm and tranquillity with just enough boating activity on the water to keep the walker entertained.
Most of the other people you encounter will be cycling or boating, so your interactions are more likely to be a wave than a conversation and it is highly unlikely you’ll meet up again over dinner or at breakfast.
Why choose to walk along a canal?
There are two important reasons that make a canal walk, in France or elsewhere, a perfect choice for a long-distance walk—
(1) It’s flat and (2) you can’t get lost!
A flat walking path can be VERY appealing to damaged knees
Walking through rural France, up and down hills and over the occasional gorge can take its toll on fragile or damaged knees. Poles can help to ease the impact and lessen the jarring but the option of a FLAT path can be very appealing.
The route that a canal takes has been chosen to minimise changes in altitude which in turn reduces the number of locks required. This is good news for the walker since it means the only inclines will be at the locks (écluses en français).
It’s hard to get lost walking alongside a canal
Walking paths in France are very well maintained by an army of volunteers. Red and white blazes will keep you headed in the right direction, but they are sometimes marked in the oddest of places—on trees, curbs and houses. It’s often not possible to see the next one up ahead and many a walker (myself included) has walked on for fifteen or twenty minutes hoping they haven’t missed a turnoff.
A canal towpath, on the other hand, is hard to inadvertently wander away from—even I would notice if the canal was no longer right beside me!
What will you see walking along a canal?
Although a canal is unlikely to meander from one ‘most beautiful village’ to another, there is no shortage of attractions, and distractions, along the way.
The Burgundy Canal (or Canal de Bourgogne)
The Burgundy Canal passes within walking distance, or a shuttle bus ride, of eight châteaux, eleven churches, one abbey, three of France’s most beautiful villages, countless picturesque lock-houses and the historic city of Dijon.
The Midi Canal (or Canal du Midi)
The Midi Canal offers a more tranquil experience, as it weaves through overhanging trees and fields of sunflowers.
But this one of the most popular holiday destinations in France for boating enthusiasts so you are never too far from a friendly face!
Cycling along a canal
Perhaps a leisurely week or two making your way down the Midi Canal is on your boating holiday, or cycling holiday, bucket list? And so it should be…
For the dedicated walker, cycling is almost like cheating! But, I confess, if I could ride a bike, I probably would ride a section or two so that I could cover more ground in the same time. If you do too, remember to slow down occasionally and admire the scenery—and to turn around from time to time and take in the (often) entirely different view unfolding behind you! (Bike rental is available from VéliBourgogne at four Tourist Offices along the Burgundy Canal making it easy to collect your bike in one town and drop it off further along the canal.)
The Nantes à Brest and Blavet Canals
While exploring the coast of Brittany in 2015, I set out to follow the Nantes à Brest Canal east from Port-Launay to Pontivy, then head south along the Blavet Canal to Lorient. This walk didn’t inspire me as much as the Midi and Burgundy Canals and I’m not sure I’ll write up the guidebook for this walk. But before you dismiss it from your list of possibilities, see what you’ll be missing here.